Contract Chemicals back in court

Contract Chemicals has been fined £25,000 after another pollution incident at its Wortley works in Leeds caused people to be evacuated from their homes. For the first time, the Environment Agency used its powers to bring charges under health and safety legislation.

On 19 May 1999, Contract Chemicals was fined £4,000 for a leak of hydrogen bromide the previous October which affected nearby residents (ENDS Report, 292 p 49 ).

Just two months after the prosecution, another incident occurred when benzyl bromide was accidentally released to air. In a matter of minutes, 17 local residents, including young children, were complaining of nose, eye and throat irritation from exposure to the substance, known to cause lachrymatory effects. Some were taken to hospital.

Before Leeds magistrates on 30 October, the company pleaded guilty to three charges. Two of the offences, contrary to section 6(1) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, drew fines of £7,500 and £2,500 for failure to maintain plant and equipment in good condition and failure to apply the "best available techniques not entailing excessive cost" as required in the firm's integrated pollution control authorisation.

The Agency also brought a charge under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 - an avenue available to the Agency under powers granted in the Environment Act 1995, which had the effect of amending section 38 of the 1974 Act. It is thought to be the first time the Agency has used these powers. Previously, such prosecutions have been the preserve of the Health and Safety Executive.

The charge was that the company failed to ensure that employees were not exposed to health and safety risks from chemical releases, contrary to section 3(1) of the 1974 Act - for which Contract was fined £15,000. The company was also ordered to pay £4,800 in costs.

The accident occurred at the company's bromination process, when a glass collar between the distillation column and the reactor fractured, causing the gas to escape.

Richard Clarke, the Agency's team leader for the area, said the cause of the fracture was not clear. But it is thought to have been the result of an earlier breakage in the column which could have caused it to fill with water, shifting it fractionally and breaking the collar.

Mr Clarke added that because the building in which the process is located was left with its doors open and ventilation fans running, the leak escaped from the premises very quickly. The Agency issued a prohibition notice immediately, stopping the company from operating the process.

The company was also served with an enforcement notice requiring it to make numerous improvements to the process, including sealing the building to contain any future releases.

The double prosecution is another blow to the credibility of environmental management standards. Contract was probably the first chemical company worldwide to achieve certification to BS7750, the predecessor of the international environmental management standard ISO14001, across all of its manufacturing sites.

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